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Did you know there are stages of burnout? For professionals in STEM, we tend to think of burnout as a black-and-white issue, but in reality, it’s a spectrum. This is great news because it lets us identify where we are on the burnout spectrum. This can be a valuable tool for managing stress at work. Here are the key stages of burnout and how to recognize yourself when you’re in them.

Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion

At this stage, you’re still keeping it together at work. You’re completing assignments on time and are on top of your projects. But the second you get home, you reach for a drink, comfort food, or another coping mechanism. You zone out for the rest of the evening, mentally detaching.

Everyone relies on coping mechanisms from time to time, but if you’re using your coping mechanisms to escape from your life, that can be a red flag. You can’t run on empty forever!

If this continues unchecked, you’ll eventually catch yourself withdrawing socially, getting poor sleep, and having trouble focusing. You may start suffering from headaches, heart palpitations, and other unexplained symptoms – your body telling you to slow down!

Over time, you may eventually catch yourself looking for ways to cut corners, which will lead to the next stage of burnout.

Shame and Doubt

At this point, regular tasks start feeling harder than usual. If someone asks you to take on a new project or mentor a new protégé, even if the assignment piques your interest, your inner voice will be saying “Are you kidding? No!” If you make a habit of still taking on these new assignments instead of drawing boundaries, you’ve got a perfect recipe for increased burnout on your hands.

You may start discounting your accomplishments. Impostor syndrome might kick in. The lack of confidence will lead to procrastination and missing work deadlines. And if you downplay the problems by blaming yourself instead of recognizing burnout as a multifaceted issue, you’re well on your way to the next stage.

Cynicism and Callousness

After months or years of burning the candle at both ends, you can expect to start coming off as defensive and bitter toward your colleagues. And that bitterness makes sense – it can feel like too much is being asked of you. If you catch yourself muttering under your breath every time your team lead asks you to make tweaks on a project or help out a colleague, take this as an urgent sign to reconsider how you’re managing your work life and to take the problem seriously.

Failure, Helplessness, and Crisis

At this point, your usual coping mechanisms no longer work. Your psychological defenses are worn down. You might notice minor inconveniences and hurdles elicit disproportionate reactions. If you continue on this path you run the risk of ending up developing depression, full-blown anxiety, and constantly feeling exhausted mentally and physically.

The point of these 4 stages is to identify where you are on this spectrum, follow the signs, and take preemptive and constructive action before the problem worsens. We’ll talk about this in future posts!